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Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman speaking at a Labor Day event in West Mifflin, Pa., on Sept. 5, 2022. (AP) Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman speaking at a Labor Day event in West Mifflin, Pa., on Sept. 5, 2022. (AP)

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman speaking at a Labor Day event in West Mifflin, Pa., on Sept. 5, 2022. (AP)

Michael Majchrowicz
By Michael Majchrowicz October 5, 2022

PA’s Fetterman said his tattoos memorialize lives taken in violence and don’t refer to drugs or gang

If Your Time is short

  • Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman has a tattoo on his left arm that reads "15104," the ZIP code for Braddock, Pennsylvania, where he was mayor from 2006 to 2019. On his right arm, there are at least nine tattoos that list numeric dates memorializing Braddock residents who were victims of violent crime during his time in office.

  • In a 2008 interview, Fetterman said the tattoos on his right arm served as a "permanent reminder" of those who met "violent ends" during his mayoral tenure. He made similar comments in 2009 and 2022. Fetterman’s campaign told PolitiFact the tattoos have nothing to do with heroin use and are not an homage to any gang.

  • Fetterman used to have a tattoo on the outside of his right wrist that read, "I will make you hurt." It’s a lyric from a popular song that refers to needle use. But in a 2009 interview, Fetterman connected that sentiment with the deaths recorded on the other side of his arm.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed in a recent Fox News segment that Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman’s tattoos are references to heroin use and violent gangs.

Fetterman is the lieutenant governor of the commonwealth and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. He will face off against Republican challenger Dr. Mehmet Oz next month.

"He apparently had a tattoo that was either a reference to a song in favor of heroin use or was a tribute to the Crips," the Republican and former House speaker said Sept. 29 on "Hannity," referring to the Los Angeles-based street gang.

Gingrich floated a similar claim days prior on Twitter, writing "Is Pennsylvania Democrat Fetterman’s tattoo ‘I will make you hurt’ based on his ties to the crips gang as reported by the Free Beacon or a reference to the nine inch nails heroin song ‘Hurt’. Fetterman won’t answer questions."

We reached out to Gingrich to find out what he was basing his information on, but didn’t hear back. We found a Sept. 26 Washington Free-Beacon article that sought to draw a connection between Fetterman and the Crips gang, but the article didn’t mention tattoos.  

Fetterman, meanwhile, has answered questions about his tattoos.

Fetterman talked about them for a 2008 story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and a 2009 story in Rolling Stone, when he was mayor of Braddock, a Pittsburgh suburb. He wrote about them in a 2021 blog post. And in a Sept. 25 op-ed published by NBC News, Fetterman addressed the claims directly after another Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, also zeroed in on the candidate’s ink.

Fetterman’s right arm shows a series of numeric dates. Each memorializes someone from Braddock who was a victim of violent crime, Fetterman has said.

"This isn't a vanity thing for me," Fetterman told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2008 piece. "It's a personal inventory that allows a way for me to properly document these people who have been felled by violence."

There are nine dates on his arm, he wrote in the NBC op-ed: "Each one is a day on which someone died violently in Braddock, Pennsylvania, while I was mayor."

Featured Fact-check

His left arm, meanwhile, shows the numbers "15104." That’s the ZIP code for Braddock.

"I get that etching art permanently onto your body isn’t how most politicians would express their connection to their communities," Fetterman wrote. "But I didn’t care about what anyone else thought. It felt right to me."

Fetterman used to have the words "I will make you hurt" tattooed on his outside right wrist. That’s a lyric from the 1994 song "Hurt" written and performed by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and covered in 2002 by Johnny Cash on his final album. The Grammy-nominated song is written from the perspective of a person in a moment of deep sadness and regret and includes a line about needle use and its failure to erase painful memories.

In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Fetterman also connected the sentiment in that tattoo — that of getting "hurt" — with the deaths that were recorded on the other side of his arm. "That’s what it does to me," he said in the story. "It’s very per­sonal."

We found no specific reference to the Crips in the coverage of Fetterman’s tattoos. And Fetterman’s campaign said Gingrich’s entire claim was wrong.

But Newsweek noted in a fact-check that Fetterman talked about the Crips in a 2015 interview posted on Medium. In it, the interviewer asked Fetterman about why he spelled Braddock as "Braddocc" in campaign signs. Fetterman said it was a reference to gang spellings. This also provided the basis for the Sept. 26 Washington Free-Beacon story that Gingrich mentioned in his tweet. Fetterman’s full comments in the Medium post were:

"When I first came into office, I was elected because of the vote of the young people that I work with. I helped get their GEDs. When I first arrived in town, I noticed that they would spell it that way, and that’s a reference to ‘Crip killer’, they turned the ‘k’ into a ‘c’. So during my campaign, I [used] ‘Vote John Mayor of Braddocc’ and ‘Vote John Mayor of Braddock’ the way it’s traditionally spelled, and the reason why I did that is because there are two Braddocks, and you have to acknowledge that. We have to acknowledge that here’s the Braddock that only young people know, the Braddock of despair and decline, and they grew up in an era when they never knew there were 14 furniture stores and three movie theaters. And I caught some flak for that because some people thought I was spelling it like a gangster. No, there are two Braddocks. And we need to bring them together and agree on the way to move forward, so that’s why I spelled that the way I did. Because ultimately I carry their flag, because they’re the ones that made the difference that I won by one vote that first election."

Our ruling

Gingrich claimed on social media and on Fox News that Fetterman’s tattoos were references to heroin use or gangs.

A review of Fetterman’s public statements going back to 2008 indicates that Fetterman got the "15104" tattoo on his left arm as a hat-tip to the town of Braddock, where he was mayor from 2006 to 2019. The tattoos on his right arm are numeric dates memorializing Braddock residents who died as a result of violent crime during his tenure.

A tattoo that Fetterman used to have included the words "I will make you hurt," a lyric from a song that referenced needle use. But Fetterman described it in 2009 as being connected to the pain he felt from these residents’ violent deaths. 

The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Fox News, "Hannity" Episode 194, Sept. 29, 2022

Newsweek, "Fact Check: Gingrich Claims Fetterman Tattoos Praise Heroin and LA Gang," Sept. 30, 2022

Email interview with Fetterman campaign spokesman Nicholas Gavio, Oct. 3, 2022

Rolling Stone, "John Fetterman: The Mayor of Hell," May 14, 2009

John Fetterman blog post on Medium, "The truth about my tattoos…", March 16, 2021

Washington Free-Beacon, "Fetterman Gave Nod to Crips Street Gang During Mayoral Campaign," Sept. 26, 2022

NBC News, "Tucker Carlson wants to talk about my tattoos. So let's talk about them," Sept. 25, 2022

Fox News, "Tucker Carlson Tonight," Sept. 7, 2022

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More by Michael Majchrowicz

PA’s Fetterman said his tattoos memorialize lives taken in violence and don’t refer to drugs or gang

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